It’s a new day at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
First, President Joe Biden on his third day in office repealed the anti-worker executive orders issued by his predecessor. Then, the president told VA leadership that he intended for the VA to be the model employer for the entire federal government.
Last week the VA – for the first time – held a joint virtual conference with AFGE’s National Veterans Affairs Council (NVAC) on health and safety and provided resources for VA employees to attend.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough himself gave opening remarks at the conference, raising the profile and importance of VA employee health and safety, which had never been the focus from the top -- especially not in recent years.
The Secretary then reiterated his commitment to Biden’s direction that he will protect and empower the VA workforce by not only supporting collective bargaining but encouraging it.
“AFGE NVAC’s work representing VA civil servants is critical to strengthening the VA, critical to making the VA more effective, and critical to improving access and outcomes for our veterans. We need good, strong, productive relations, open and transparent communications. We’re committed to fully implementing President Biden’s executive order on protecting the federal workforce, an order he signed just two days after inauguration—an order revoking the previous administration’s executive orders,” McDonough told AFGE members. “The VA’s career civil servants are the backbone of the federal workforce. We owe it to the nation—especially during the pandemic—to protect, empower, and rebuild the federal workforce.”
For union members, this is another example of the Biden administration’s worker-friendly approach and good will, a turning point in labor relations.
“When unions have been essentially left out of crucial briefings and discussions during the COVID-19 global pandemic because of the previous EOs, Secretary McDonough’s presence at the health and safety conference is significant,” said AFGE Health and Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez. “Not only does it set the tone for working with the union in keeping with President Biden’s direction, but it raises the profile and importance of VA employee health and safety.”
The 2021 health and safety conference highlights
Like Secretary McDonough said in his opening remarks, health and safety of VA employees is very important for the VA to carry out its mission. Here are a few highlights of the conference:
- The conference offered a wide variety of health and safety classes including ventilation and COVID-19, Office Safety and Ergonomics, the Americans with Disabilities Act and reasonable accommodation, an OSHA 10-hour class, and a 3-day intermediate safety class presented by Veterans Health Administration industrial hygiene staff.
- In addition to the classes and workshops, we had webinars for all participants that provided updated information on COVID-19. Presenters included Lisa Brosseau, a renowned researcher and authority on respiratory protection and COVID-19, and VA safety and mental health experts.
- This combination allowed AFGE and the agency to present both smaller classes on traditional health and safety issues while also addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and recognizing the need to address mental health and wellbeing.
- At the closing plenary, VA Acting Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Support Deborah E. Kramer thanked participants for their work and service to veterans during the pandemic. She invited questions after she spoke, and participants asked about collaboration between the union and management on health and safety and also about getting back space for union offices. They urged her to make sure VA sends a clear message to all management that they have to follow the guidance on implementing the Biden EOs.
- The conference ended with a session in which small groups of participants shared in the most creative ways what they learned and what they will take back to their locals. One group did a television interview with participants leaving the conference. Another shared their hope for working together with management on health and safety by singing “Tomorrow” from Annie. One shared what they learned about different classes through poems, including this one about the stress management class:
STRESS MANAGEMENT & SUICIDE PREVENTION:
If your job is causing you stress,
Use techniques to make it less.
Pressure and bills, and bearing the load
Can lead you down a bad mental road
Stigma keeps some from reaching out.
Family, friends and peers can help, no doubt.
Take a deep breath or take a walk.
Call the help line if you need to talk.
The next conference will be in Denver, CO, the week of April 11, 2022.
Until next year!